Equity Task Force Forms to Address Core Challenges at CU Denver

Q&A with Co-Chairs Antwan Jefferson, Associate Clinical Professor, School of Education and Human Development and John Ronquillo, Assistant Professor, School of Public Affairs

October 19, 2020

When Michelle Marks started her new role as chancellor in July, she learned of frustration at CU Denver with the lack of action on issues of diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI). So, she spent her first 10 days in listening sessions, hearing from students, faculty, and staff on matters specific to equity and racial justice. 

From the feedback, Marks committed to a number of short-term and long-term actions, including the appointment of the first-ever chancellor’s faculty fellow, the establishment of the Auraria Campus Police Dept. Community Advisory Board, and the search for CU Denver’s next vice chancellor for DEI

Last week, Marks added another action item to the list in announcing CU Denver’s inaugural Equity Task Force. Chaired by Antwan Jefferson, PhD, associate clinical professor in the School of Education and Human Development (SEHD) and John Ronquillo, PhD, assistant professor in the School of Public Affairs (SPA), the task force will work over the next six months to dive into CU Denver’s core challenges, including structural barriers to hiring and promoting underrepresented faculty and staff.

“It will bring together faculty, staff, and students to explore a host of issues—including how to close the achievement gap, what it means to be a Hispanic Serving Institution, how to create a culture of belonging, whether our policies are contributing to equity, and how we might diversify the curriculum—and recommend an ambitious action plan and investment priorities,” Marks wrote in the Oct. 15 campuswide announcement

CU Denver News connected with co-chairs Jefferson and Ronquillo to discuss the Equity Task Force and what it means for the CU Denver community.

What drove your interest in contributing to the Equity Task Force?

Ronquillo: My strong desire to contribute to this area stems in large part from my own identity as the only son of a Chicano/Indigenous father and a white mother. Neither of them went to college, nor had they planned on me being so ambitious in my own higher education pursuits. Over the years, I have discovered and embraced other elements of my identities and focused on the greater need of understanding intersectionality and identity in social and organizational spaces, and especially in academic spaces. 

I believe that we are at a critical point in an era that necessitates bold, lasting change when it comes to equity and social justice issues. As a scholar of both public and nonprofit organizations and social equity, I believe that these changes are embedded in organizations from the top down. As such, I applaud Chancellor Marks for establishing a much needed, firm foundation early in her tenure for CU Denver to be a forward-thinking crucible of learning where students, staff, and faculty are all empowered because of our great diversity. 

Jefferson: My interest is in thinking with colleagues (including students, staff, and faculty) about the university as an entire (albeit large) organization. My commitment is to a culture of work and collaboration in which we share voice, responsibility, and power, such that our work together honors everyone who participates in the process—maintaining a focus on core commitments to equity and justice as outcomes of diversity and inclusion. 

Thus, the opportunity to participate as a member of the task force encourages me to consider how and why as equal to the what in our thinking about an inclusive and just University of Colorado Denver.

How has your previous experience prepared you for your role as co-chair of the first-ever Equity Task Force?

Ronquillo: Much of my scholarship, service to the university, and service to the community have been grounded in diversity, equity, and inclusion. As an example, my most recent article, co-authored with one of my doctoral students is titled “Racial Representation and Socialization in Bureaucratic Organizational Structures” (American Review of Public Administration, forthcoming). I have also published pieces on social equity in professional codes of ethics, on Native Americans, Native Hawaiians, and other indigenous peoples and social equity. 

Diversity, equity, and inclusion issues are also central to many of my courses, most notably my doctoral seminar in public management, and master’s courses in organizational behavior, social entrepreneurship, and public service ethics and leadership. Beyond all this, I just love working in a collaborative, team-oriented environment toward goals and objectives that promote positive outcomes.

Jefferson: I have had the opportunity to co-chair equity-focused initiatives such as the Denver Public Schools’ Strengthening Neighborhoods Initiative in 2017-18, focused on addressing inequities experienced by children and families throughout the city as a result of housing displacement following increasing housing costs in Denver. Through this experience, I’ve learned a bit about the collaboration and compromise that are necessary when working on equity-related issues in a group structure.

Since 2018, I have been the chair of the University of Colorado Denver Core Curriculum Oversight Committee, which has the unique and critical responsibility of the general education curriculum of the university. Working with faculty from each of the schools and colleges has helped me think about the wide range of perspectives that faculty bring to their work. This committee showed me the importance of honoring faculty expertise, ensuring that staff members are equal partners in our deliberation, and maintaining a focus on what is in the best interest of students. 

What is the purpose of the Equity Task Force and how will students, faculty, and staff be impacted?

Ronquillo: Simply put, the most significant part of it is making sure that university leadership receives a solid set of recommendations to break down barriers that have traditionally held students, faculty, and staff back. We want to identify ways to better enable student success, including increasing our retention and graduation rates. We want to identify ways to better diversify curricula. We want to recommend ways—both in policy and in management—to build a stronger culture of inclusion. We want to find ways where we can improve our human resources practices and promote and better retain those who have been traditionally underrepresented. 

Jefferson: While the Task Force has been initiated by Chancellor Marks who has called upon the university to prioritize equity, and who seems to see such work as vital to the future culture and climate of CU Denver, its purpose will become clear as we work together. 

Much of our work will be discovery, and the purpose of our discovery will be to understand what contributes to rates of retention of diverse faculty and staff, the patterns of student success experienced by all students at CU Denver, and the institutional commitments and practices that hold up the university culture and climate as they are today. 

This should produce recommendations for a more welcoming, accepting, and affirming university experience by and for students, staff, and faculty—reflected in action, policy, and practice. As important, though, we will attend to policies that may institutionalize exclusion or protect a status quo.

I cannot assure how students, faculty, and staff will be impacted—our work is to make recommendations. The enactments of our recommendations will determine impact. However, staff, students, and faculty will provide input to our recommendations, and our recommendations will be public. 

Where do you see CU Denver in the next five years? 

Ronquillo: By then, we will have celebrated our 50th anniversary as a standalone campus within the CU system, and it is my hope that we will continue to cement our reputation as the premier urban research university in Colorado, one that is even more inclusive, innovative, purpose-driven, and responsive to the needs of society throughout the Front Range and beyond. It is my hope that we’ll be a leading institution where future problem solvers and creators will see our diversity as an asset to their education and life trajectories. 

Jefferson: I don’t know where we’ll be in five years. The past six months have felt to me like five years, given the national climate and the ongoing duress of being a Black person in the U.S., observing the fraying, and losing my sense of progress. 

I have to use my hopeful imagination to venture an answer to this question: I can imagine that we increase the population of faculty and staff of color to be proportionate to our student body. I can imagine that this diverse group is retained and promoted because they are valued and supported at every level of the university. I can imagine a campus in which we are motivated by a genuine sense of mutual care and respect, curiosity, and a commitment to knowledge that we share with and gain from the city and region. 

To be sure, we all are contributing to the degree of diversity, equity, and inclusion experienced by students, faculty, and staff at CU Denver. Attention to the culture and climate of the university is the responsibility of each of us, not just a small group who is committed to thinking about this.